Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
So today might be a good day to acknowledge
that we here at Woodbrook
are a little out of step with the traditional way of doing things.
I’m talking about Advent worship here—
not sure what y’all are thinking about!
Traditionally, Advent is the celebration
of hope, peace, joy, and love—in that order.
We’re out of order.
We celebrated joy last week—with a blue candle of all things!
And today, on what is traditionally the joy Sunday—
with the pink candle,
we’re at peace.
Why? you might ask—
what with rejoicing rather obviously
key to both our Isaiah and 1 Thessalonians texts—
and to today’s psalms text as well,
which if you haven’t read ahead,
you’ll notice when we read through it after the sermon.
Joy. Joy. Joy.
But when I was preparing for Advent—
when I was reading these texts,
I was struck reading Paul’s words to the Thessalonians
by his reference to the God of peace.
Why? you might ask again.
Why amidst all this joy,
were you struck by that?
Well, I was pondering these texts,
and this season,
and our world, and our God.
So let us ponder together—which may answer our question.
Our Isaiah text begins with the voice of a speaker
anointed by God—called by God—tasked by God,
and the anointing alongside the spirit-of-God-upon-me language
echoes fairly specifically, the anointing of David
(1 Samuel 16:3, see also 2 Samuel 23:1-2).
And so we are prepared to expect momentous happenings—
a pivotal character in history, and in the history of Israel—
the history of God’s people—of God’s will on earth.
So our speaker is anointed, called, tasked,
and there follows a series of infinitive verbs
specifying the calling—the task:
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for all those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
oh, look, there are seven infinitives!
The series of verbs then transitions into a series of insteads—
to give the mourning a garland instead of ashes,
gladness instead of mourning,
praise instead of a faint spirit.
Oh, look, there are three insteads!—
three inversions of experience—
three times taking loss and grief
and turning it into hope and celebration.
Finally, we have a series of “theys.”
First, a “they” of definition:
they will be called oaks of righteousness,
then three tasks “they” will accomplish in their righteousness:
they shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities.
And yes, the reference is to post-exilic Jerusalem, sure,
but more generally to the mess we’ve made of life—
to the possibility of restoration—
the possibility of re-creation.
And all of this underscores
the importance of human participation
in the work of God—
the implementing of God’s will, right?
All this inversion is accomplished through this one—
through those called, tasked, anointed by God—
which is us, too, isn’t it?
We then hear a direct word from God
offering us a foundation for our tasks in history:
the foundation of God and God’s love of justice,
the everlasting covenant (like the one God made with David)—
on which we can rely
even though Israel’s broken the covenant
in almost every way conceivable.
And, just because it struck and intrigued me this week,
God’s expressed love of justice raises the possibility
that we’re specifically sent to those unjustly oppressed,
we are sent to free those unjustly imprisoned,
we are sent to those broken hearted and mourning because of injustice—
because of miscarriages of justice.
After God speaks,
we’re back to the human speaker—
rejoicing and praising, but rejoicing and praising
on behalf of the community—
on behalf of the people of God.
This is the joy and praise of the community, not the individual.
“This remarkable vision,” says Walter Brueggemann,
“seeks to summon [Judaism] out of every temptation to despair.
The hope-filled message is Yahweh-rooted
but concerns restored community”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66
in the Westminster Bible Companion
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998] 218).
We have an immensely challenging calling,
but it is God who undergirds our work in history
and joy is our experience through it all.
Then there’s our epistle text—
Paul writing the Thessalonians—
actually wrapping up his letter to the Thessalonians
with a word of blessing and exhortation—a benediction.
It’s sometimes called Paul’s shotgun exhortation
(Abraham Smith, The First Letter to the Thessalonians:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in the New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2000] 731)
because of the wide spray of imperatives.
It’s the same structure, did you notice, by the way? as the Isaiah text:
a challenging calling—a tasking—
grounded in who God is
so that we can take heart
even facing the challenges we do.
Rejoice and pray and give thanks always—consistently.
I don’t think we’re talking about a response to circumstance
which isn’t always joyful—which isn’t always grateful.
We’re talking about an approach to circumstance.
Do not quench the Spirit of God that is upon us—
Do not minimize the huge task set before us.
Do not cynically despair at what God calls us to do—
what God expects. Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise the words of the prophets,
but test everything—
even the words of the prophets.
Hold it all up to God
to take its measure.
Hold up our fascination with violence,
Hold up our focus on stuff.
Hold torture up,
Hold up the rejection of immigrants.
Hold up racial discrimination.
Hold up what politicians say—
what Wall Street says—
Hold up what preachers say!
Don’t hold it up to what you think or what someone else has or says.
Hold it up to God.
Hold it all up to God.
And then let the juxtaposition speak to you.
Does this fit with God?
Hold fast to what is good—
Abstain from every form of evil—
even when “used as the means to worthier ends”—supposedly.
And may the God of peace—the God of peace—sanctify us—
set and keep us apart in holiness.
The one who calls us and anoints us and tasks us is faithful
and will do this—
will sanctify us.
So the question with which we’re left, seems to me,
is not can we do all this—
in the midst of the way things are?
Scripture assumes we can, right?
Otherwise why tell us to?
The question is not can we do all this,
but how do we do this?
How do we accomplish this momentous calling—
this pivotal task in our world—in history?
Especially when it essentially
sets us on a collision course
with the way things are.
How is that not a recipe for chronic frustration—
for burning out—
for living in anger?
We live in an absolutist society.
Jon Stewart, one of my favorite contemporary prophets—
a title, by the way, he does not claim, but that I give him,
Jon Stewart noted recently, in the aftermath of Ferguson and Staten Island
and the acquittals of the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner,
“You can truly grieve for every officer
who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country,
and still be troubled by cases of police overreach.
Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive.
You can have great regard for law enforcement
and still want them to be held to high standards”.
It’s as if we think questioning any aspect of something
calls it all into question.
You notice how often that happens?
How often we do that?
You notice God never does that?
God criticizes the hell out of Israel—
precisely to get the hell out of Israel—
never giving up on Israel.
We are called—we are tasked
with criticizing the hell out of our world—
our country—our culture—our community—ourselves—
never giving up on any of them.
And it’s never (or shouldn’t be) the anger and the criticism
that define God or God’s relationship with Israel
(or ours with our country, our culture, our community and ourselves).
It’s steadfast love.
And again, I ask, how do we do that?
How do we sustain that—
in the face of so much that is mindboggingly stupid—
in the face of so much that is truly evil—
in the face of all that is greedy and short-sighted and foolish and wrong?
Gary Hall, Dean of the National Cathedral
speaking at Amy’s installation at the Riverside Church in New York
(I’m just shamefully namedropping, aren’t I?!),
Gary Hall said the world doesn’t need
“more angry people with an agenda”
(Gary Hall, sermon for the installation of Amy Butler as Senior Minister,
The Riverside Church, NYC, October 5, 2014).
So, how do we live God while living in this world and culture?
How do we express our love in anger—in expectation?
How do we not lose hope in our frustration and our fear?
Fortuitously for this sermon, I believe Advent gives us an answer!
Because what we have in our traditional and nontraditional
Advent themes is not a causative sequence.
It’s not that you fulfill hope and get to peace,
find peace and know joy, know joy and live into love.
One, two, three, four in that order.
No, love, hope, joy and peace are more a constellation—
the truths that orbit the presence, the will and the work of God.
And Advent missed out in not naming one Sunday
(I mean with four you run out of Sundays pretty quickly!),
but there should be a justice Sunday too.
The Isaiah exhortation is grounded in the God of justice,
as the Thessalonian exhortation is grounded in the God of peace.
And while the angels sing of peace,
there can be no peace if there is no justice.
There can be no peace even in prosperity.
There can be no peace even with so much progress,
if there is no justice.
And so no sustained hope,
no deep joy,
no love with integrity.
For it’s precisely in the interplay—
the interplay of being called to work for peace and justice,
that we sustain hope and experience joy
and manifest love.
What the world needs—
what the world desperately needs are more people
deeply committed to justice, but at peace—
who can be angry—
who can even have an agenda,
but from a place of peace,
So are you?
Are you at peace?
Here’s the thing:
God is clear,
and the world is pretty clear too.
So we hear do justice,
and we hear do whatever it takes.
We hear work for peace,
and we hear work for profit.
We are called to hope,
and we are called to immediate gratification—
We are called to joy,
and we are called to happiness—
well, the world talks about love too,
but it doesn’t know what it means.
When there’s this basic fundamental incompatibility,
what do we do?
Last week, Dad referenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer
who seventy-one years ago, on December 18, 1943,
wrote from prison: “I have given up all hope of release….”
You know what happened to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, right?
He was not released; he was executed by the Nazis.
“The past weeks have been more of a strain
than anything I have been through before. But it cannot be altered.
Of course, not everything that happens is the will of God,
yet in the last resort nothing happens without [God’s] will (Matthew 10:29)
i.e. through every event, however untoward,
there is always a way through to God”
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
Eberhard Bethge, ed. [London: Collins, Fontana Books, 1959] 54-55).
There is always a choice that is the good.
There is always a choice that rejects every form of evil.
Do you believe that?
Sounds very optimistic.
I’m not optimistic.
But I am a prisoner of hope.
There is a choice that is committed to peace and justice.
There is a choice that puts us into the orbit of joy and hope and love,
so as to celebrate it as hard as things are—
to look for it as hard as it may be to find—
to recognize it born ever anew in the world around us—
to desire it—
to work for it—
to expect it—
and to never settle for anything else—anything less.
We have to have some sense of our purpose—
our calling—our task—
some sense that what we do matters for God—
matters for creation—
whether we see it or not.
Simultaneously, we have to have some sense of God—
no, more than that—
enough to live God’s way—
There’s something about knowing we have a part to play,
but that the outcome is not dependent just on us—
that amidst any focus on our own experience
of peace and love joy and hope,
as vitally important as I believe that to be,
is critically indicative.
We are still waiting for God, not some abstract divinity.
We are waiting for God with us.
We are waiting for God in history.
we’re waiting for God in this country.
We’re waiting for God in this culture.
amidst the materialism—amidst the violence—amidst it all,
we’re waiting for God—
an active working presence in the world—
anointing us to be a part of that working.
Even believing God is already and always with us—
already and always in history,
waiting nonetheless as we are called to momentous living—
waiting for something momentous to happen.
Are you waiting for something momentous to happen?
Are you waiting for God’s momentous act?
It is the third Sunday of Advent.
A prisoner of hope,
I claim joy in our purpose—
to cry for justice and to believe in peace.